Let me be clear: I do not advocate falling off a horse. But when I recently came off my slightly green, alpha-personality Quarter Horse, Sundance, I learned a lot. And it wasn’t about technique or communication. It was about gaining a better understanding of who he is.
We were alone in an arena at a nearby equestrian center when we had a run-in with the gate. I came off (gently) and he took off toward the far end of the arena. I just stood and watched him.
He flat-out ran to the other end (perhaps not-so-coincidently toward home), then, still at full speed, followed the rail around to about mid-arena, where he turned toward home again. He ran several laps in this way. As a spectator, I have to say it was a beautiful sight---there is nothing as graceful as a running horse. But, I thought, if this had happened on a trail, he would have been long gone. You’ve heard of those horses who don’t abandon their owners when they fall off? First lesson: Sundance is not one of those horses. At least not yet.
Sundance called out a couple of times while he ran those laps, and I wondered whom he thought he was calling to, since there were no other horses nearby. Second lesson: In times of distress, Sundance will look for any other horse, rather than me, for comfort.
After he ran himself out and began trotting, I started my approach. Still on high alert, he kept his distance. I stood still and waited. After a minute, Sundance stopped and stared at me. It was as if his mind had suddenly come back online, and he recognized me. His surprised expression seemed to say, “What are you doing here?”
I know there’s a lot of debate on what horses actually think and feel. Some people consider them to be dumb. But I believe there is a lot going on between those fuzzy ears. I can’t tell you exactly what Sundance felt about my witnessing his panic attack, but I believe it was something akin to embarrassment. He lowered his head and slowly walked to me. Third lesson: He may not turn to me first during a panic, but when his mind comes back, I am a person he trusts.
After quickly checking over him and my tack, I remounted. We did a few more short exercises in the arena and headed home. Sundance was absolutely perfect during the extra work, the ride home, then a few extra laps and untacking. My slightly green Quarter Horse, who was never absolutely perfect … was perfect. Fourth lesson: In everyday riding, Sundance understands what to do; he just often chooses to argue about it.
And, finally, the takeaway lesson: The first and foremost thing I need to work on is establishing a better relationship with Sundance, one based on trust and respect. I’ve heard it said that alpha horses aren’t looking for a leader---they’ll accept one, but they’re not looking for one. It’s clear to me that my Quarter Horse does not wholeheartedly accept my leadership. Perhaps he’ll always be testing me to make sure I am still up for the role. Either way, the light went on: Sundance doesn’t need more training per se as much as he needs to learn to trust and respect me more. Only then will our experiences on the trail improve. I decided that maybe I should spend less time on drills and more on tackling little challenges and achieving small victories together.
I still do not advocate falling off a horse. But every incident provides the opportunity to learn something. The trick is to try to keep an open mind to see things that hadn’t occurred to you before.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #444.